Palestinians showcase tech talent

Conference promotes one of the few growth industries in occupied territories.

Technology offers a way to overcome restrictions imposed by Israel on physical trade

Surrounded by flashing monitors, Maysoun Ibrahim explained her bright idea.


Ibrahim, a 30-year-old Palestinian college professor, has developed a human recognition computer program that uses three cameras, a 360-degree view and an image database.


She said: “When I was a child and I saw movies where they recognised the criminal, I said to myself, how do they do this?”


Ibrahim was only one example of the talent showcased at Expotech 2006, held recently in the West Bank town of al-Bireh.


Her ground-breaking application can be as accurate as a fingerprint, the programmer said, even recognising those who have disguised themselves with glasses or a scarf.


Ibrahim hopes that the show will help her find to a sponsor to advance her work.


Growing Sector


Expotech, held annually, is intended to promote one of the few growth sectors in the Palestinian economy, say its organisers.


Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, the West Bank and Gaza economies have withered under Israeli travel restrictions and a more recent Israeli and international financial boycott.


Still, over the last three years, the number of Palestinian internet start-ups increased by half.


Last year, internet and communications trade made up five per cent of $200m in Palestinian exports.


The Palestinian Information and Technology Association (Pita), represents 70 companies. Its executive director, Safa Abdel Rahman, said: “We want to penetrate other economic and productive sectors.”


The trade show, which cost Pita, the Palestine Trade Centre and exhibitors an estimated $3m, included 140 planned meetings between companies and prospective clients.


Borderless trade


Information technology “is the one area in which we can reach the world”, said 24-year-old Issa Qadi, volunteering at the West Bank show to represent the Gaza-based company Nepras.


“All you need is a computer and an internet line.”


“Technology always has a solution”

Nepras has used the web to sell its graphics in Britain and Saudi Arabia. But the 20-employee firm has no office in the nearby West Bank.


Israel, citing security concerns, permits only a limited number of Palestinians who travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip on business.


At this year’s show, Pita sponsored free computer stations, volunteer representatives, and a live satellite hook-up for seven Gaza companies otherwise unable to attend.


Next to a screen showing a Nepras video of puppets in a vegetable market, a tiny camera sent live video of our conversation to the Gaza Strip.


“Technology always has a solution,” Qadi said, grinning.


Still, he realises that innovation and communications cannot replace hardware.


Qadi’s college thesis, an Arabic language text-to-speech application, was delayed for three months until he convinced an Israeli company run by Palestinians to import a computer chip on his behalf.


Political tug-of-war


Sometimes, too, local politics puts up obstacles.


Expotech was originally planned for September but the event was delayed because of fears that factional competition between Fatah, which controls the Palestinian presidency, and Hamas, which holds the most seats in parliament, could disrupt the exhibition.


Outside the al-Bireh exhibition hall on opening day, several dozen girls chanted slogans demanding a return to school.


Hadeel Awdallah, 35, a mother of five pupils in al-Bireh public schools, said: “We heard that the president was coming here, and we decided to show up.”


Palestinian government workers, including teachers, have been on strike for over two months, requesting back pay.


Israel’s refusal to transfer Palestinian taxes revenues and an international aid boycott have depleted the government’s coffers.


Some Fatah leaders have backed the strike in order to pressure their political rivals. Hamas officials, on the other hand, are eager to show that business and trade continue as usual.


Pita has struggled to avoid being dragged into the tug-of-war.


Abdel Hadi, the organiser, said: “We are very much in support of the employees that are on strike.


“At the same time, we think the economy is very important, and that we need to keep investments in Palestine.”


At Expotech’s opening ceremonies, the Hamas-appointed minister of telecommunications spoke by satellite from Gaza, but the booth allotted for the ministry remained unstaffed due to the strike.


It was not long before a Nokia dealer was giving out grab bags in the empty space.


Open Market


Expotech’s 49 exhibitors showed off various uses of technology.


The Cairo-Amman Bank plugged the latest internet and telephone banking services, while the elections commission demonstrated its interactive website.


Paltel Group, which until recently held the sole Palestinian franchise for telecommunications, filled an entire floor.


The government’s opening of the telecom market has pushed Paltel, which made $150m in profits last year, to focus on new services.


It is developing eight web portals designed to appeal to Palestinian children, gamers, and job-seekers.


Ghassan al-Jamal, a content and development director, said: “In order to enrich the experience of users, whether they are users of internet or the mobile phone, we need to have them using services.”


Kuwait’s Wataniya telephone company bought rights in September to compete with Paltel, promising to invigorate the sector further.


If Palestinians can keep all this talent around, says Ibrahim, her country could become a technology leader.


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